Leonard Woolf’s WELIWEWA and Its Terrain

Gerald Peiris**

After getting the article in Thuppahi on Leonard Woolf and Silindu presented by Ernest MacIntyre, I read Village in the Jungle (for the second time since long ago) and found it difficult to connect the essence of the Woolf narrative with what the producers of the play referred to as an attempt to portray village like in a remote setting in the interior of the ‘deep south’.

Leonard Woolf in his aging years & glimpses of village women gathering tank-water in 2oth century Ceylon

I had visited that area in the company of Prof. V. M. Rao in 1983 during the course of our field investigations on the ‘first generation’ of IRDPs (just before that Russian pogrom[1] broke out interrupting our work for several months). In villages like Weliweva, even by the early 80s living conditions had improved only marginally from those of the early 20th century, and the people were still dependent largely on chena growing of dry grain and cannabis — something Woolf appears to have missed- – for the local market the trading of which was almost totally under the control of middlemen.

Rao and I came across an extraordinarily good-looking young woman (probably a genetic freak) with two children (one, an infant) — the ‘man’ having decamped, his whereabouts not known — living in a single-room wattle-and-daub hut. As in hundreds of other ‘purana villages’ in the drier parts of the country, here in Weliweva also there was an unusually large presence (that is to say, at least about 10 persons) with fairly prominent physical deformities — obviously a result of generations of inbreeding).

The village of Weliweva was intended to benefit from one of the two ‘Tank Cluster Projects’ launched by under the IRDPs in the area. It was a total flop. However, [by now in 2021], my guess is that the Weliweva locality (along with the Mattala area where the second Tank Cluster project was located) must have benefited a great deal from the Airport, Highway, a ‘Major Irrigation’ system, and other infrastructure development projects of the recent past.

You might not be interested in the foregoing sketch; but what I really wanted to say was that the I found Leonard Woolf displaying a remarkable grasp of that social setting during his relatively brief spell as AGA, Hambantota a good mastery of Sinhala idiom and even the spicy kunuharapa freely used in village brawls. The Silindu-centred parts of the story (he was convicted of murder, commuted to life imprisonment) is obviously intended to highlight the benevolence and wisdom that is supposed to have featured the colonial regime at its higher levels (quite different from its reactions to the ‘1915 Riots’), contrasting with the crudely exploitative social relations that prevailed among the natives.

Still for all that, it is a fascinating read — the book, initially published by Hogarth Press (London), re-printed four times thereafter up to up to the 1961 version which I have. It has been translated to Sinhala by a scholar named Erathne under the title Baddegama. Tissa J[ayatilleka] who borrowed my copy some years ago (and returned it!) said that it was not available with any of the booksellers in Colombo. Christine Wilson’s Bitter Berry is also quite interesting, but not as good as Village in the Jungle.

*** ***

** GERALD PEIRIS was born and bred in the Negombo district but has lived in Kandy for six decades. While teaching at Peradeniya University, he has pursued academic stints in many countries: UK, India, Australia and USA.

END NOTES added by The Editor, Thuppahi

[1] Referring here to the awful events of July 1983 when Tamils in many parts of the island were attacked. This set of events is usually described in the literature as “Riots,” but one Michael Roberts  has insisted on redefining it as a “pogrom.” This is Gerry’s elliptical and genial humour: a dig in my ribs.


De Silva, Prabath 2020 “Leonard Woolf as a Judge in Ceylon,” 20 November 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2016/11/20/leonard-woolf-as-a-judge-in-ceylon/

MacIntyre, Ernest 2021 “Ernest Macintyre’s Silindu of Baddegama,” 27 June 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/06/27/ernest-macintyres-silindu-of-baddegama/

Roberts, Michael 2021 “Confronting Ethnic Violence and Its Roots in Vengeance,” 28 June 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/06/28/confronting-ethnic-violence-and-its-roots-in-vengeance/

Roberts, Michael 2003 “The Agony and Ecstacy of a Pogrom: July 1983,” Nethra, April-Sept 2003, 6: 199-213.


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2 responses to “Leonard Woolf’s WELIWEWA and Its Terrain

  1. Pingback: Leonard Woolf’s Weliwewa Terrain: Gerald Peiris’s Profound Expertise  | Thuppahi's Blog

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